Island Fury: Guadeloupe closes schools after riots in COVID

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Guadeloupe’s education department ordered schools closed for all ages Monday “taking into account the situation,” and asked parents to keep their children at home. Demonstrations in Guadeloupe, an overseas French department of about 400,000 people, erupted over France’s mandatory vaccinations for health care workers and the COVID-19 health pass, required to enter restaurants and many other venues across France. As they degenerated into rioting, an 80-year-old woman was hit by a bullet while on her balcony and at least two others have been injured, according to local authorities.

France’s central government sent in police special forces to try to restore order to the former colony, as emergency workers said they were unable to reach neighborhoods barricaded by angry crowds. “We have several patients” in the blockaded area of La Boucan, tweeted Patrick Portecop, head of the regional emergency service. “We are powerless.” While mainland France has seen similar protests, demonstrators in Guadeloupe are also angry over deep-seated economic, social and racial inequality, and expanded their demands in recent days to include a general salary increase, higher unemployment benefits and the hiring of more teachers.

Guadeloupe’s COVID-19 vaccination rate is 33%, compared to 75% nationwide, which authorities blame on false information about vaccines shared online. There is also distrust toward central authorities stemming from past health scandals. Stupefaction, sorrow, resignation, indifference — the mood in Pointe-a-Pitre changes from street to street. Police are clearing major thoroughfares of road blockades that have made movement difficult for days. Smoke wafts up from heaps of burning garbage and electrical equipment. Nails, broken glass and tree trunks litter the streets, as a woman rummaged through the charred remains of her home.

Outside the main hospital, striking workers have set up a camp against mandatory vaccinations for health workers, and sympathizers bring food. Guadeloupe’s president, Ary Chalus, decried the looting: “We cannot destroy what we built together.” But he noted that the riots are “about more than mandatory vaccination,” and lamented on regional television that the central government hasn’t responded to requests for economic support “as fast as they sent in law enforcement” to quell the rioting. “There is a situation that is very explosive, there is a very local context. There are tensions that we know about that are historic,” French President Emmanuel Macron said Monday.

He urged efforts to convince people “that the vaccine is the best protection, and to not cede to lies or manipulation. … Public order must be maintained. Guadeloupe has the right to calm.” ___ Angela Charlton contributed to this report from Paris.

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